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India: Independence, Episode 89 - 15/06/06


Citizens celebrate India's independence from British rule in the streets of  Calcutta.(Keystone/Getty Images)

Citizens celebrate India's independence from British rule in the streets of Calcutta
(Keystone/Getty Images)
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The light of the British empire was extinguished in 1947. Without India, there was no empire.

For the years before WWII, Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose had insisted only independence would do. And when Attlee became prime minister (1945) he too wanted India to have its independence. India no longer made economic, administrative nor political sense to a Britain with no money and the biggest social reform programme it had ever attempted.

In theory, India might have gained independence earlier but for three conflicts: First, Britain struggled with the principle of independence. Second, WWII meant Britain was not geared to creating the circumstances for letting go. Third, was the failure of the Indians themselves to unify. The Muslim League of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the largely Hindu India Congress Party, enormously influenced by Gandhi never fully agreed on any way ahead. By the 1940s Jinnah wanted a separate state for Muslims and in 1947, the new viceroy, Mountbatten, created Pakistan.

Mountbatten had become viceroy because his predecessor Archibald Wavell fell out with the British government. Wavell said flood India with British troops to supervise handover and then pull them out as the partition was completed. Attlee didn't think so. Wavell went.

Mountbatten arrived in March 1947. His deadline for independence was June 1948. Fifteen months was not much time. But so clear was it that civil war between Muslims and Hindus was about to break out, that the date was brought forward to August 1947.

The inevitable happened. Religious fury. All of it hurriedly left by the British. Probably, some two million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs died. Between twelve and fifteen million people were forcibly transferred between the two countries.

Here was the legacy of the failure of the British to organise a peaceful independence, their dismissal of a sensible military plan that had been produced by Mountbatten's predecessor, Wavell and the intransigence of Gandhi and even Jinnah.

How much was the peace-loving Gandhi responsible? Or Jinnah who had pleaded for unity and then demanded partition?

In the end, both failed. It was not the end to the raj that the British had envisaged.

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Historical Figure

7th June 1948: Lord Louis Mountbatten (1990 - 1979), 1st Earl Mountbatten of  Burma, the last Viceroy of India and overseer of the partition of India into  India and Pakistan. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

7th June 1948: Lord Louis Mountbatten (1990 - 1979), 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India and overseer of the partition of India into India and Pakistan.
(Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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Louis Francis Victor Albert Nicholas, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, 1900-1979

Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and last British viceroy of India, was born near Windsor and was a grandson of Queen Victoria. He was always a sailor and served during WWI.

In WWII he commanded in the Mediterranean during which time his ship was sunk but his sailors refused to blame him and he became their hero. He became chief of combined operations (1941-3) and then supreme allied commander South east Asia. After India he became 4th Sea Lord, First Sea Lord in 1955 and chief of the defence staff in 1959. He was murdered by the IRA.

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Did You Know...

The practical means of crating up the raj was given to high court judges under Sir Cyril Radcliffe. They had a month to sift claims and counter claims, re-draw boundaries, separate Hindu and Muslim, attempt to persuade recalcitrant princes to co-operate (there were 600 or so) and decide who owned what - including Jammu and Kashmir.

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Contemporary Sources

Britain's attitude to Indian independence reflected its feelings of powerlessness:

"To enable such legislation to pass this Session it must be introduced into the House of Commons not later than the 7th of July, and submitted to ministers in a revised form and finalized in the light of their views.

The basic facts are:

  • (A) we are transferring power.
  • (B) We have therefore no power to enforce anything whatever unless it happens outside India.
  • (C) Anything that does happen in India will happen because the Indians agree to it or acquiesce in it.
  • (D) Our only assets are the force of habit (a big one), the probability that much administrative machinery will run on because nobody has time to stop it or knows that it is running on, and the personality of the viceroy and some of the governors."
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